The power of community
Tessa qualified as a social worker over 30 years ago and now uses her social work knowledge and expertise to train the next generation of social workers through the Frontline programme.
Over the years, Tessa has seen social work adapt according to the times. However, one thing continues to remain foundational and that is the importance of community and relationship in social work practice.
In 2020, when the pandemic took place, social work had to adapt drastically. Social workers have always provided practical support, but during the pandemic the level provided became greater, because the level of need increased. For example, many families didn’t have access to Wi-
Currently, the cost-of-living crisis is yet another challenge that is making life hard for a lot of families. For many, there’s a huge insecurity with housing, rise in costs for utility bills and necessary household items. Imagine a child needing to get their parents’ attention and a mother or a father not being as attentive or responsive because they are overwhelmed by worries of how to pay the next bill, put food on the table, or find an affordable place to live. These pressures can hugely impact families’ physical and mental health. And to make matters worse, health services themselves are overstretched and hard to access to get support.
What these examples highlight to me are the essence and importance of community, and the positive impact this can have on a child. I remember one of my first jobs as a social worker; I was based in a converted corner shop in Leicester which offered community support services to a local area. This meant that people, for example those who had learning difficulties, mental health challenges and/or were parents, were able to come and get support whenever they needed it. The benefits of this community approach were that as a social worker you were able to learn more about the community and all the services within it and you were also able to form relationships not just with different agencies but also the people I would see on a regular basis.
A similar approach that we saw in the 2000s was Sure Start and children’s centre initiative. Children centres were set up in every area across the country, and they provided multi-agency services for families. This mainly focused on early years, as there was a real emphasis on early intervention in a child’s life to catch problems as early as possible and prevent them from getting more serious or causing harm. Centres offered play facilities, benefits advice, family support, childcare and healthy eating. Some children’s centres employed social workers and local social work teams could also refer families for services. Importantly, rather than the initiative only being open to a specific group of people, it was open to everyone to remove any form of stigmatisation or shame that we sadly often see for families who need social work support today.
Looking back over the past and seeing how social work has changed and adapted over the years, my hope for the future of social work is that we build on the lessons from the past. More people and more families are being pulled into poverty now more than ever and it’s so important that families who are going through challenging times and have the support of a social worker also have access to resources and other services to help navigate difficult times. And that means people coming together, working together, and pulling on the power of community. And however we choose to organise services, we should always come back to this, and make sure we’re taking a relational approach. I believe that relationship enables us, as social workers, to effectively support children and families to achieve the best outcome for them.
Social work to me means social justice, addressing issues, facilitating, and empowering change. Whether economic, familial or social circumstances, these factors can have a huge impact on a child’s life. And social work plays an integral part in addressing these issues and advocating for children and their families.